clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Time to Consider Moving Alabama and Auburn to the SEC East, Mizzou and Vandy Out West?

New, 211 comments

Why the SEC should look at a dramatic shift in the shape of its football divisions

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Back when the SEC went through conference expansion in 2011 and 2012, there was a little discussion of what to do with Missouri. After all, Texas A&M was set for the SEC West. That meant that the conference could either add Missouri to the SEC East -- despite the fact that it was to the west of five schools in the SEC West -- or undertake a dramatic rejiggering of the conference's divisions.

The most talked about option was moving the then-westernmost school in the SEC East -- Vanderbilt -- over to the West with Missouri while moving the two easternmost teams in the SEC West -- Alabama and Auburn -- to the East. That would allow the divisions to make a little more geographic sense and (key to the whole thing) preserve both the Iron Bowl and the Third Saturday in October without changing the SEC's 6-1-1 scheduling format.

As we know, the league decided to go with the former, and one of westernmost schools in the conference now has two Eastern division titles.

It's important to remember the context here. In 2011, South Carolina ended up being a Top 10 team at the end of the season, and Georgia was ranked in the Top 20. The next year, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida all ranked in the Top 10 at season's end. It didn't really seem necessary at the time to shift around the lines just for geographic niceties, and putting Alabama and Auburn into a division with Georgia, South Carolina and Florida at the time seemed to create the same logjam there that we now have in the SEC West.

But things have changed over the last few years. No SEC East program was ranked in the Top 20 in either the AP poll or the coaches' survey at the end of last season.

If the SEC West is Mad Max: Fury Road, then the SEC East is Downton Abbey -- infighting among the aristocratic and incestuous hierarchy of a nation destined to become a second-tier power that depends on its closest ally for influence and prestige. And while there will almost always be one dominant half in any two-division college football conference, the imbalance between the SEC West and the SEC East is getting dangerous to the competitive balance of the league. Consider:

  • No current SEC East head coach has ever won an SEC title.
  • The last SEC East team to win the conference championship game did so in 2008. The last SEC East team not coached by Urban Meyer to take the trophy in Atlanta was Georgia in 2005.
  • Since the turn of the century, the SEC West is 11-5 in conference title games.
  • In the last seven SEC Championship Games, the SEC West team has won by at least 14 points in all but one of them. The average margin of victory in those seven games has been 22 points.
  • It's not just in the championship event that the East is getting paved. After going 7-7 against the West in 2012 -- the first season with a 14-team conference -- and 6-8 in 2013, the SEC East has fallen to 6-22 in regular-season interdivision games over the last two years. Many of the more recent losses have been by large margins.

There is a chance that the pendulum will swing back, of course. But we don't know that it will. Four of the five SEC East teams to have won a division title have a different coach than they had at the end of the 2014 season. Jim McElwain surprised by winning the East at Florida in 2015, but there are questions about whether he is recruiting well enough to win the SEC, at least more than in a one-off, upset sort of victory. Butch Jones has yet to turn great recruiting classes into a division title, much less a conference championship. (Relax, Tennessee fans; I'm not saying he won't, simply that he hasn't yet.)

Because of the uncertainty surrounding any coordinator moving into the head coaching position, we still don't know how Barry Odom will do at Missouri or whether Kirby Smart can do as well as Mark Richt at Georgia, much less better. And we have a track record for South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp -- the less said about that, the better.

Which is why it might be time for the conference office to consider radical changes to try to shake things up. And the most obvious solution is moving over the SEC's marquee program and its biggest rival.

First, though, some might ask whether the kind of competitive imbalance that's developed in the SEC over the last decade is really worth addressing at all. It's a fair question; after all, there's only one SEC team that's going to be truly happy with the way the conference standings look at the end of the year. But there are a few reasons why the SEC West being this much better than the SEC East could become a real problem, particularly if it continues for a period of five or ten years.

On one hand, it's profoundly unfair to teams in the SEC West. Take 2014. There were four or five teams in the West that probably could have won the SEC's other division. But Missouri -- which played the only two SEC West teams that failed to reach .500 in conference play and beat each of them by a touchdown -- received the East's invitation to Atlanta that year and promptly got annihilated by 29 points against Alabama. No SEC West team outside of Texas A&M lost to Alabama that badly, and the Tide beat only one division squad other than the Aggies by more than seven points (Auburn, by 11).

On the other hand, it could begin to hurt the chances of SEC East teams to compete at much of anything. Right now, most of the division's coaches are still new enough to argue that they are the guys to turn it around and bring a trophy home to Gainesville, Knoxville, Athens, Columbia (MO), Columbia (SC) (stop laughing), Lexington (really, stop laughing) or Nashville (sto-- actually, as long as Derek Mason is still there, you should probably keep laughing). If recruits start to get the idea that the SEC West is the only place you can win, the teams in the East are going to be left attempting to lock down their own states and get the SEC West's leftovers from the rest of their region. That's unlikely to lead to long-term success.

Vandy-Mizzou
Denny Medley -- USA Today Sports

That leads to the SEC West becoming ever more dominant, the SEC East games suffering from fan apathy, and some fan bases in the West getting increasingly frustrated at their inability to get to Atlanta despite having teams that could probably win other conferences. A worst-case scenario, sure, but one that should start to worry people who care about the SEC more and more if the East doesn't catch up.

Couldn't Alabama become an even more unstoppable juggernaut in the East? Perhaps. But facing off against Nick Saban's team every year has forced some of the SEC West schools to get creative or clever. Ole Miss just beat Alabama in back-to-back games for the first time -- ever. Alabama has lost at least one regular-season game in each of the last six years. The Tide doesn't win the West all the time, and Auburn has won two of the last three non-Alabama division titles. And even if Alabama did win the SEC East with regularity, it would likely face a more -- how should we put this? -- competent opponent in the Georgia Dome, one perhaps capable of denying the Tide the conference crown.

There's also another benefit in changing the divisions, one I alluded to earlier: It would allow the SEC to get rid of the interdivision rivalry game and go to a 6-2 or 6-3 (if the non-Saban coaches would drop their cowardice) scheduling format. The only must-have rivalries that are keeping the interdivision series alive are Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia. If all four teams were in the same division, we could drop the cross-division rivalries. Or, to placate Vanderbilt (which would lose its annual in-state rivalry), we could keep them in a format perhaps like this:

West team East team
Arkansas Auburn
LSU Florida
Mississippi State Kentucky
Missouri South Carolina
Ole Miss Georgia
Texas A&M Alabama
Vanderbilt Tennessee

(The logic for the non-Tennessee rivalries: Keep Mississippi State-Kentucky and LSU-Florida, because there's no reason to change them. Georgia and Ole Miss used to be each other's secondary interdivision rival back when the SEC had a 5-2-1 scheduling format. Alabama and Texas A&M have shared history from Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings and Dennis Franchione. Missouri-South Carolina has already turned into an entertaining series. And though it's also process of elimination, the Arkansas-Auburn games can get kinda bizarre in a good way sometimes.)

Another bonus: We pick back up the Auburn-Florida rivalry, which used to be a thing back in the day. In fact, those teams were also secondary rivals before the SEC went to one permanent interdivision opponent.

There are drawbacks of the idea, to be sure. As a South Carolina fan, I'm acutely aware that I'm arguing counter to my own interests. (Though, truth be told, I'm not overly concerned about the Gamecocks' chances of winning the SEC East as long as Muschamp leads the program.) And we would be ripping out years of tradition -- Alabama has played more games against Mississippi State than against Auburn, and as many against LSU as against the Plainsmen.

In the real world, this would also be a tough sell. There would likely be at least five votes against it (Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee), and perhaps more based on what programs perceive to be in their best interests and best traditions.

So the conference shouldn't overreact to the SEC East's recent slump -- considering the idea is the right posture for now. A few more seasons of a struggling SEC East, though, and it's probably time to pull the trigger and try to re-establish balance in an unbalanced conference.